The Four Gospels

Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics

The Four Gospels

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The canon of the New Testament contains four gospels. The word ‘gospel’ comes from an Old English word godspell, meaning ‘good message’, used to translate the Greek word euangelion, ‘good news’, but it has a double meaning when applied to the New Testament. It can mean the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ, as written in the literary genre of gospel (of Matthew, Mark, etc.), or it can refer to the preaching of Jesus Christ, or about Jesus Christ (the good news about Jesus: a quite different usage to that attributed to Jesus in Mark 1: 15). Why there should be four gospels rather than one is an intriguing question, but not one easily answered.98 It is known that there were many other gospels in the earliest Christian period, but they were not adopted by the churches of the fourth century which constructed later classical Christian orthodoxy. Though these gospels are valuable to scholars for the light they cast on Christian origins, believers are not bound to consult them at all. In a strange parallel to the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean desert at Qumran from 1947 onwards, they were found in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi in 1945. They seem to belong to early Christian communities which either did not survive the onslaught of the mainstream churches, or were marginalized by them. Among them are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the Everlasting Gospel.99 These ‘Gnostic’ gospels, as they are often called (see glossary), lack the narrative structure of the canonical books, and, often from a different perspective, concentrate on the sayings of Jesus. Little is known for certain about the origins, composition, or provenance of the gospels. Traditions and legends associate particular gospels with named apostles, but since the development of nineteenth-century biblical scholarship on the New Testament their reliability has been questioned. They are essentially ‘friend of a friend’-type stories, interesting, but not hard evidence. Furthermore, since there is nothing in the texts of the gospels to indicate authorship, attributing them to anonymous writers does not run counter to the text. Three of the four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are basically very similar, and are known as the Synoptic Gospels. That is, they can be ‘seen together’, giving a common portrait of the life and ministry of Jesus. Traditionally they tended to be harmonized, to show them in perfect agreement; now the gospels are more often read synoptically.100 The shorter, stylistically cruder, Gospel of Mark is thought to have been the earliest of the canonical gospels. In general the order of events in the Synoptic Gospels follows that of Mark, but where it does not, Matthew or Luke tend to agree with Mark, not with each other. When material in Matthew and Luke does not appear in Mark, the two former gospels tend to use it differently. No independent source has been found to account for this material, so a common source Q (Quelle German for ‘source’) has been posited for it. The Gospel of Thomas provides a parallel for this posited source in that it consists of a lengthy series of sayings of Jesus, but without any narrative framework. Modern New Testament scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels works with hypotheses relating to two source documents (Mark and Q) or four source documents (Mark, Q, Matthew, and Luke).101 John, the Fourth Gospel, is very different from the Synoptic Gospels, and other theories have been advanced to account for its origins.

Chapter.  608 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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